2023 Honda CB500X First Ride: City Bike Has Aspirations Of Adventure

Type "Honda CB" into the used motorcycle classifieds on Craigslist, and everything from 1970s classics to modern superbikes will pop up for sale immediately. Arguably the most popular line of bikes every built, ranging from early four-strokes to modern water-cooled track toys, the alphanumeric CB lineup today still includes three entry-level options: the CB500R sport, CB500F naked, and the CB500X adventure bike.

The CB500X originally debuted in 2013 with mild off-road enhancements, but as the ADV segment has exploded in recent years, Honda made a few revisions along the way to build up those adventurous aspirations. The comfortable upright riding position now benefits from inverted Showa forks, a 19-inch front wheel, and a windscreen with two adjustable heights. Meanwhile, Honda's 471cc parallel twin sends peaks of around 46 horsepower and 31 lb-ft of torque to a slipper clutch and six-speed gearbox.

Much like the other 500-class CBs, those numbers will never seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that the minimalist equipment contributes to a ready-to-ride weight of only 439 pounds. Meanwhile, a big 4.7-gallon fuel tank makes the 32.8-inch seat feel lower than it should, as does the engine's low mounting position within the diamond-trellis frame.

Initial impressions of affordable adventure

The first time I climbed aboard the CB500X immediately brought back memories of a Craigslist CB360 that nearly tempted me into an engine rebuild project almost exactly one year ago. In an age when plasticene switchgear so often seems cheaper-than-cheap, the CB500X carries that same old Honda hallmark of quality, despite a starting sticker of just $7,199—or almost exactly half as much as the far more ADV-dedicated Africa Twin's $14,499 MSRP.

Light action for the clutch lever and silky engagement of the shifter pedal all serve as a reminder that bikes don't necessarily need fancy dry-plate clutches or expensive materials to feel inviting and ready for a long day in the saddle. In fact, shifting through the six gears and neutral sometimes felt so smooth that in my heavier-duty (read: dirty) boots, I sometimes struggled to recognize whether I had actually shifted gears before letting out the clutch and feeling the engine wind up (or without looking down at the digital gauge screen first, anyway). Luckily, the CB500X still provides plenty of other feedback, with just enough grumble and pop from a tame exhaust setup and progressive throttle modulation that started off good and eventually got pretty great the higher up I spun the little two-cylinder engine.

Ride quality on the way to find some dirt

Driving out to find a few patches of dirt, a strong headwind buffeted the bike a fair amount, probably thanks to the upright windshield—which did protect my helmet from most of the slapdash effect—and the relatively lightweight construction. Even riding into the breeze, though, the little mill gave out just enough juice to pull away from traffic. Lower aero profiles of the R and F probably help reduce that lost energy, but these are all city bikes, and the X in particular doesn't particularly enjoy going much above 60 mph. Winding past 6,000 RPM in sixth takes a few moments, though the longer I rode, the more I learned to out of to shift out of lower gears later to stay in the power band at higher speeds.

Once acclimated to the engine and gearshifting, I almost belatedly began considering the soft suspension that ADV bikes should deliver. The fact that damping even entered my mind so late into that first ride probably hints that Honda managed something of a per-dollar miracle—no, the inverted Showa forks with 5.9 inches of travel won't wow many experienced riders, but they get the job done. They're not adjustable in any way—via buttons or tools—because this ain't that kinda bike. But even on rougher roads, the suspension works fairly well at keeping a relatively light bike from pranging over hard jounces or reaching too much of a wavy rollercoaster sensation on repetitive undulations. We're a far cry from the kind of unfathomable competence that Ducati managed on the DesertX, to be fair, but the CB500X is still much more comfortable than I expected (even more so than the concerted efforts of the Zero SR/S, which needs serious shocks to mask its battery-laden heft).

Canyon carving on an ADV'd commuter

Once I turned up into the canyons, those earlier lessons about living higher in the rev range came in handy almost immediately. Any uphill grades add another layer of battle for the little motor, and I found myself occasionally leaning forward subliminally to try to help us scoot up the road. But even while unconsciously urging the CB500X along, I still felt much more upright in classic ADV fashion—carving through corners without quite as much counterbalancing took a moment of adjustment, too.

I'd call riding a bike with this kind of upright position good practice, but the truth is that most commuter and cruiser riders do so without a second thought. It's just my obsession with sportier bikes (and carbon-fiber bicycles) that makes for a bit of a transition period, since I only get to ride what the OEMs send, after all. Still, after a few minutes, I eventually glanced back down at the digital gauge and discovered that I had been holding surprisingly high and steady speeds through corners. But that's exactly the kind of confidence that a lightweight bike can inspire, as opposed to bigger, bulkier ADV options with more power, more complex suspension, and more storage space for gear.

Meanwhile, downshifting into corners with the satisfying engagement of the shifter and slick action of the clutch lever meant I barely needed to test the Nissin brakes until I did so just for you, dear reader. And I can happily note that the 2022 addition of dual front discs—with ABS that will undoubtedly prove handy in the dirty—do a great job of reining in those moments when I got a little overexuberant up near that 10,000-RPM redline.

More competent than perhaps expected

Now, I can readily admit that I never took this bike on anything near to a grueling African safari, but in what little dirt I rode, the easy power delivery of that parallel twin made for minimal wheelslip and a surprising level of confidence. In fact, I might even argue that where all-out grunt feels lacking at freeway speeds (or higher), Honda manages to perfectly nail throttle modulation for the CB500X's engine output and weight in lower traction situations. The addition of a stock 19-inch front wheel to the CB500X in 2019 also helps a bit, even if the Dunlop Trailmax Mixtour tires lean towards road use rather than gravel just as much as the rest of the bike.

Meanwhile, thick and sturdy footpegs combine with excellent waistline ergonomics to inspire perhaps a bit more time standing up and out of the saddle than usual for this dedicated road rider. As usual, though, I found the hints of slip and slide a bit disconcerting even while appreciating how quickly a bit of weight transfer brought the tires back into line. Not bad, really, given the rubber—but something that adding a set of saddlebags to the accessory rails may well exacerbate. 

On the subject of complaints, the fact that Honda made the windscreen adjustable with two positions, but decided that the adjustment should require tools, came as something of a letdown. How about just a quick stop before jumping back out onto the pavement and hurrying home on the highway without hating that headwind again? Guess not...

Honda harkens back to a simpler time

And the fact remains that despite the addition of some adventurous aspirations, the CB500X undoubtedly fits better into the current crop of lightly ADV'd commuters than true trail-prepped machines. Call it "all-weather" perhaps. But even after my longest mixed ride of over two and a half hours, I arrived back home with only a hint of sore knees—which I'd mostly attribute to college lacrosse and less to the bike itself (even if a higher seat might help).

For the price, the CB500X directly undercuts an Africa Twin, even if dedicated adventure riders might scoff at the lack of exactly the equipment that doubling the sticker actually buys. Same goes for a Yamaha Tenere and even more for a DesertX. But this Honda harkens back to a simpler era, before we all softened up our shocks whenever the dirt roads got rough (and softened up ourselves with heated grips and cruise control). And be honest, do you really want to take a fancy, expensive bike out to get filthy, covered in grit and grime, or maybe even drop it?

Appreciating a great bike that can do it all

If Honda's heritage teaches us anything, the CB500X will start up every time and never leave anyone stranded out in the middle of nowhere—provided they actually go on the kinds of adventures that ADV advertisements sell. The mythical one-bike solution usually isn't the greatest idea, either, so the smartest move might just be to buy an affordable bike and wait to see whether those adventures ever materialize, then make the decision to upgrade with gnarlier tires, better suspension, and the requisite accessories

Or not. In the real world, everyone should appreciate a great bike that can just about do it all when called upon, from efficient and comfortable city commuting to exploring gravel roads and everything in between. Just don't expect to see many of these on Craigslist, because owners who do take the leap will find themselves hard-pressed to flip for anything else that offers better bang for the buck.